In this, his most famous book (says the blurb on the cover) Oe examines the devastation, fear and shame of fathering a brain-damaged child. This interpretation is oddly off-mark. "A Personal Matter" does not really examine these issues; it examines how a man avoids facing his own, quite different feelings. A sense of shame does pervade the novel, but it is an emotion that is felt most strongly by characters who think in a more conventionally Japanese way.
Bird, the main character of the novel, is a 27-year old man in a failing marriage. He teaches at a cram school and dreams of escaping to Africa. He is drifting through a life that has no meaning or direction (not that he bothers). The birth of his brain-damaged son forces him to face the question "what is the right thing to do for me?". He dodges the question as long as he can, plunging headlong into a drinking binge, a sexual affair, and eventually a scheme to have his son killed by a quack doctor. But the question does not go away. It is his very own personal matter. No one can help him. The question corners him (not surprisingly, several scenes of the novel prominently feature blind alleys), and finally he finds HIS answer. Or rather, the answer finds him - he did not consciously look for it.
More than anything that is impressive about this novel - the evocation of a stifling atmosphere, the restrained, matter-of-fact tone of the narrator, the stark realism, the depiction of the sense of shame and horror that the birth of a handicapped child evokes in the Japanese - more than all these things I admired how Oe managed to convey a sense of the unconscious humanity of the man Bird (who, after all, does not live up to any moral standards when he begins an affair while, at the same time, his wife is about to give birth in hospital).
The book has a very real background: In 1963, Oe's own son was born with a brain hernia. The doctors predicted that the boy would be severely retarded and gave him little chance of living any significant amount of time. Oe almost decided to abandon the boy. But before he did, he went to a memorial for those killed at Hiroshima, and there he realized that he could not take the easy way out. Today, the boy is as old as I am, and he leads a more or less independent life as an artist in Japan.